Social Innovation Factory launches in Brussels

Summary

The newly launched centre will unite different players and actors in Flemish civil society to find answers to challenges like poverty, urbanisation, multiculturalism, ageing populations and climate change.

Centre wants to offer innovative solutions to modern-day challenges

Innovation factory – the term conjures up images of high-tech devices designed behind the closed doors of specialised labs. But the Social Innovation Factory launched by Flemish innovation minister Ingrid Lieten last week is a different beast. Based in the Brussels’ district of Anderlecht, it will unite different players and actors in Flemish civil society to find answers to challenges like poverty, urbanisation, multiculturalism, ageing populations and climate change.

“New technology provides solutions to many practical issues, but we also need innovative social entrepreneurship to respond to pressing problems in our daily lives,” said Jan van den Nieuwenhuijzen, chair of the factory’s board of directors, during the opening festivities of the centre. The launch event took place at the Halles des Tanneurs space in the centre of Brussels.

At the Social Innovation Factory, a company or association with an idea for a social enterprise can present its concept and then brainstorm the next steps to realising it. First, the innovators will discuss their strategy with other social entrepreneurs during a “strengthening session”. The new centre wants to foster a community of social innovators that helps other aspiring entrepreneurs by exchanging experiences and knowledge.

Van den Nieuwenhuijzen, former CEO of the Antwerp human resources company SD Worx, represents the business world on the board together with representatives of energy group Eneco and the organisation in der minne, which offers trainings to improve staff relations in companies. The initial idea for the Social Innovation Factory came from these and other businesses and organisations, including the Brussels-based sustainable bank Triodos and Antwerp’s dance school Let’s Go Urban.

The social sector is represented by the Flemish Network Against Poverty, environmental organisation Bond Beter Leefmilieu and the umbrella organisation for civil associations De Verenigde Verenigingen. Three representatives of the government of Flanders will also be appointed to the board.

Filling a need

The Flemish Agency for Innovation in Science and Technology (IWT) was an important partner in the run-up to the project. Through the social innovation factory, entrepreneurs can request a feasibility study and (co-)financing by the IWT. The network also assists innovators in their search for other partners or investors. The Flemish government has allocated the Social Innovation Factory a budget of €2.56 million, spread over four years.

We need innovative social entrepreneurship to respond to pressing problems in our daily lives

- Jan van den Nieuwenhuijzen

To stimulate the area of social enterprise, the Flemish government’s department of economy, science and innovation launched an open call for projects in need of funding early this year. Associations, businesses and knowledge institutions submitted no less than 137 proposals, which clearly demonstrates that the factory is filling a need. An independent group of experts selected 20 projects, which will each receive an investment of a maximum of €50,000 for the duration of one year.

One of the projects backed is Buurtpensio(e)n, an initiative of the knowledge centre Woonzorg Brussel. The centre has developed a swap system in which volunteers collect “time credits” for their later home care by helping people in need of assistance or companionship. Participants can, for example, shop for groceries for a neighbour or read the paper to someone who is socially isolated.

The time spent on these activities is stored on a personal account. The volunteers can exchange the credits they’ve collected for the services of other participants, can give them to acquaintances or donate them to the organisation. The project will launch in the Brussels’ district of Neder-Over-Heembeek next month. A year from now, the knowledge centre will evaluate the project and possibly launch similar activities across Flanders.

Among the other laureates is DementiaLab, which designs low-tech solutions for people with dementia and their caregivers. Launched just this month, DementiaLab shares tools via an online platform. The idea is to help people with dementia live longer in their own homes and improve their quality of life. The project is co-ordinated by the Limburg Catholic College, its MAD Faculty (Media, Arts and Design school) and its Social Spaces research group.

At the launch of the Social Innovation Factory, veteran social entrepreneurs also talked about their companies’ histories. Serge Van de Zande, founder of the telecommunications business Ello Mobile, explained the philosophy of his “profit for non-profit” initiative. All the profits of the company’s mobile phone operations are used to fund charity projects selected by the King Baudouin Foundation. Right now the company supports projects providing health care to the homeless in Brussels and education to street kids in South America.

www.socialeinnovatiefabriek.be